Nic Rouleau couldn’t get a ticket to The Book of Mormon.
Like the stories you’ve no doubt heard about the wildly popular, box office-busting Broadway show, tickets are one of New York’s hottest commodities, and they have been since the record-breaking musical opened just three years ago. So Rouleau turned to the show’s daily lottery system — about 2 dozen tickets offered raffle-style to eager patrons, 98 percent of whom will leave disappointed — and lucked his way into the Eugene O’Neill Theatre that way.
“I won the lottery and saw it from house right up in the box, and I remember I left and called my mom and said, ‘Mom, I don’t know when, but I’m going to be in this show. I have a feeling,” says Rouleau. Not two weeks later, he landed an audition, and within a month of his lucky lotto win, Rouleau was backstage rehearsing as a standby for leading Mormon missionary Elder Price. “It all happened so quickly. To say it was nuts is just the biggest understatement.”
Not since Wicked have two leading roles in a Broadway show been so sought after, nor so inextricably linked to the actors who created them. Andrew Rannells (Girls) and Josh Gad (Frozen) catapulted to megastardom thanks to their roles as Elders Price and Cunningham, two teen Mormons sent on a misguided mission to an impoverished village in Uganda. The budding friendship between the two characters is the star centerpiece to the well-oiled machine that is The Book of Mormon, the irreverent nine-time Tony Award winner written by South Park duo Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Frozen composer Bobby Lopez that has raised the bar for musical comedy for the next, oh, century.
Rannells and Gad no doubt left two pairs of giant shoes to fill, and now The Book of Mormon has placed its faith in two relative newcomers — Rouleau and Pitch Perfect‘s Ben Platt — to spread the Latter Day word. With impeccable comedic timing and an approach to the characters that Chicago critics called revelatory, the duo have safely taken the reins on Broadway’s hottest show, turning in a pair of performances that has transformed an already-blazing fire into a towering inferno.
Rouleau began first, landing a role as Rannells’ Elder Price standby in the original company. Just two and a half weeks after beginning rehearsals, Rouleau made his debut, both on Broadway and in the show: “I remember coming upstairs for intermission and having no idea what just happened during act 1. No idea if I was in the right place, if I sang the right notes, if I said the right lines. I felt like I was going to throw up.”
First night nerves be damned, Rouleau would go on to be the first official replacement for Price when Rannells departed the company in the summer of 2012. When plans formed to launch the show’s second national tour that December with a sit-down start in Chicago, Rouleau was recruited to lead, although the casting of Elder Price’s goofy counterpart Elder Cunningham posed a significantly greater challenge to directors.
Ben Platt, a California singer barely out of high school, had been typed out for Price at an earlier audition, but didn’t think he fit in with the archetype of Cunningham either.
“It didn’t immediately click that I would be in this show, because I really thought I was in between the two roles,” recalls Platt, who came onto the Mormon radar thanks to a high-profile featured role as misfit magician Benji in the 2012 acapella blockbuster Pitch Perfect. “They were having trouble finding a Cunningham both for Broadway and the tour, so [producer] Scott Rudin called Allison Jones, who’s a casting director in L.A., and she said, ‘I just saw this movie and there’s this kid that plays this kind of socially strange character.’ So then they called me in. Really, I owe it to Allison Jones, so thanks, Allison Jones.”
Platt was brought in to meet Rouleau in the reading, though the latter wasn’t aware of the former’s sudden star power. “I saw Pitch Perfect about a week and a half before I met Ben,” says Rouleau. “I remember looking at him and going, ‘God, that guy looks familiar. Who is he, should I know him?’ I didn’t put it together until I left.”
With both in place, rehearsals began, and the two young actors faced something of an uphill battle. Not only were the characters of Price and Cunningham histrionically linked to Rannells and Gad, but physical appearance played its part as well. Rouleau easily matches Rannells’ chorus boy good looks (of which there’s no short supply at a New York casting call), but the fresh-faced Platt stood on the opposite end of the spectrum from Gad’s Cunningham — sloppy, portly, and just generally out of place. (In fairness, Platt is also the actual age of the teenage Cunningham, while Gad was a decade removed.)
Platt’s physical difference from Gad gave him pause: “When I first got to rehearsal, I would introduce myself and people would say, ‘Who are you playing?’ I’d say, ‘I’m Elder Cunningham,’ and they’d all kind of be like, ‘Ohhh.’ Until that point, it had only been played one way, so at that point I was a little panicked, but once people saw what I was going to do with it, I was calmer. Josh is very different from me.”
As Platt contended with reinventing Cunningham from the ground floor, Rouleau faced the peril of purely imitating Rannells, from whom he had first learned the role: “Our directors, Trey and Casey [Nicholaw], were always hard on me, all the time, to strip me of any Andrew-isms. I was even delivering lines in the same cadence as Andrew. But after watching him for a year, having to strip that away and start fresh was the hardest part.”
Fortunately, both owe a portion of their successful character reinvention to the other. When fate brought Platt and Rouleau together in Chicago, the chemistry was immediately palpable. The two shared an apartment building in the heart of the city and quickly became inseparable both on and offstage.
“He felt like my younger brother instantly,” says Rouleau. “I felt really attached to him from the get-go.” The pair solidified their bond just two weeks into their Chicago run, when they made a brief 18-hour trip to visit the Harry Potter theme park in Orlando (coincidentally an important destination in The Book of Mormon). It was the first time Rouleau realized, “This was going to be a lifelong friendship.”
For just under a year, the duo performed to rave reviews at Chicago’s Bank of America Theatre. In October 2013, the production left Chicago and became the second national U.S. tour, but rather than hit the road, Platt and Rouleau got an even bigger job promotion: reprising their partnership on Broadway.
NEXT: ‘Especially in year three, everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into’
As good of friends as they are, their differences run deep. The son of mega-producer Marc Platt (Wicked, If/Then), Platt comes from a hugely musical family. “I can’t really remember a time before musical theater was talked about every day,” says Platt, who briefly joined the national tour of Caroline, or Change at just 11. Rouleau had the opposite experience, growing up in a family of non-singing athletes (that rare breed) before finding footing as a musical theater student at NYU. “My parents were really supportive but they didn’t know the first thing about theater. They had no idea what they were getting themselves into,” says Rouleau, whose post-graduate bookings would include a national tour of Legally Blonde and a stint as Woody in Toy Story: The Musical on Disney Cruise Lines.
Their differences also stretch into their approach to the show. Platt gets into full mic and make-up almost 90 minutes before the show; Rouleau puts on his costume with five minutes to curtain. Rouleau warms up with rigorous technical vocal drills; Platt belts The Last Five Years. “The walls are thin, and I’ll just hear Ben belting for Jesus,” laughs Rouleau. “We’re completely the opposite.”
They’re both flattered by the esteem that comes part and parcel with the show’s acclaim. Fans swarm the stage door daily, handing them letters and gifts and personalized Build-a-Bears (“Mine has a lightsaber that lights up!” Platt gushes). They’ve even experienced the rare encounter that happens with Mormon — the infamous Religious Epiphany. “We had this one girl in Chicago who was a practicing Mormon who, throughout the show, decided that she no longer wanted to practice the faith and had the breakdown at the stage door,” recalls Rouleau. “That was probably the heaviest experience we’ve had.”
But there’s a grueling side to the adoration. Mormon may be one of the most coveted jobs on Broadway, but it’s also perhaps the one with the most hype — and with great hype comes even greater pressure to impress ticket-buyers who arrive at the theatre with certain expectations.
“When it’s a matinee and it’s cold outside and no one is responding, sometimes I’ll feel myself pushing harder to try to get a response, and that really only sends them further away,” says Platt. “You just have to sit back and trust the narrative, and give them just as good a show as every other show you’re going to do that week.”
The Broadway production hasn’t fallen below 100 percent house capacity (standing room is alive and well at the Eugene O’Neill) since it opened in March 2011. The show attracts almost 9,000 theatergoers each week, grossing an average $1.5 million per eight-performance week. Expectations are high, especially as the show continues to sell out its tour and just took home four Olivier Awards for the West End production.
“Especially in year three, everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into,” adds Rouleau. “There’s a lot less shock value, so people sometimes sit back like, ‘All right, show us what you got.’ And especially with a new group and not a lot of the original cast anymore, you almost have to work that much harder to hook people in.”
That’s why Platt and Rouleau are taking this whole thing in stride, not letting the pressure get to them and instead basking in the knowledge that each one is undertaking this adventurous Mormon mission with a best friend at his side. There’s a camaraderie between them that makes it easy to spend seven days a week with each other, whether they’re singing for 1,000 people or giggling alone in their dressing room watching YouTube videos.
“I just feel like it’s so often you get co-stars where there’s so much drama, and we were so afraid that was going to happen,” says Platt. “But for Nic and I, it’s been the total opposite, right from the start. We have no drama.”
Never has a lack of drama been so welcome in the theater.